Cadavers. Néstor Perlongher. Cardboard House Press. 2018. 35 pages.
In their continual effort to bring some of the most interesting Latin American literature to the English-speaking world, Cardboard House Press releases yet another instance of powerful, important poetry with a political resonance. As it is customary in the publisher’s catalog, the slim book comes as a bilingual edition, translated accurately by Roberto Echevarren and Donald Wellman. Cadavers by Néstor Perlongher is in fact one long poem reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s free style. But, if the great American bard tends to place himself at the center of the poetry, Perlongher is mostly absent in Cadavers; the poetic voice in this poem acts rather like an esoteric medium, a vehicle for other voices (living, dead, or perhaps silenced) to materialize in ways that are not meant to be completely clear. The reason for this is the historical and social background of the poem: the infamous right-wing military junta that brought violence and oppression to Argentina in the 1970s, a brutal regime that killed thousands of people in its determination to silence opposition. Those who were assassinated or kidnapped by the state are now known as “los desaparecidos” (the disappeared, the missing) and this poem can be read both as homage to these and as a reminder of the climate of repression and fear during a dictatorship. The author, Néstor Perlongher, was himself a target of the junta for his activism for homosexual rights and had to flee to Brazil where he continued writing until his death.
Cadavers fluctuates between two binaries: what can/cannot be seen and what can/cannot be said. Both are interdependent and are weaved into the fabric of oppression and terror that the poem reproduces. The first opposition is exemplified by the repetition of “Hay cadáveres” (There are cadavers) at the end of each stanza. Its apparition acts as a ghastly reminder that punctuates the writing and permeates life. At the very beginning, these cadavers appear in likely places such as “under the brush/ In the scrub/ Upon the bridges/ In the canals” but as the poem progresses, the phrase shows up unexpectedly, as an interruption of the discourse rather than a place: “Under those circumstances, when the mother/ washes the dishes, the son his feet, the father his belt, the little/ sister a spot of pus that, beneath the armpit/ keeps ‘waxing,’ or/ There are cadavers.” Here, the ominous refrain emerges suddenly among the mundane actions of a family, breaking down the grammar and inserting itself in the discourse. The constant reiteration of the straightforward “Hay cadáveres” (a total of 30 times) urges the reader to acknowledge the fact and reminds her of the pervasiveness of loss and death in a dictatorship. Even if one can’t see them, the cadavers are there, literally and figuratively.
The materiality and resonance of the word “cadáver,” which in the poem is injected as a disruption of everyday life (and language), brings us to the second binary around which the poem constructs its meaning: what can/cannot be said. At the end of the poem, we read “There’s no one here? The woman from Paraguay asks/ Answer: There are no cadavers” The poem, it would seem, finishes with a denial of the very phrase that has been repeated again and again, symbolizing, perhaps, a take-over by the official discourse of the dictatorship, with its memo-like last verse. Throughout the poem, we see examples of a certain and progressive deterioration of language that mimics an exercise on self-censorship. The longer, more discursive stanzas at the beginning of the poem gradually give way to verses with just one word or even without words, using hyphens as a manner of ellipsis and signifying that which cannot be said. The poem itself seems aware of this degradation and in a sort of forewarning of what’s to come, declares at some point: “In the collapse of this writing/ In the blurring of those inscriptions/ In the blending of these legends (…)/ There Are Cadavers”. The simulated self-censorship in the poem is not only present as a self-referential mechanism, but it is also conveyed through the characters and the voices that populate the text, in more direct and realistic portrayals of life under a dictatorship:
“Ay! Don’t tell anything to Doña Marta, she tells her grandson who’s been drafted!
And if Donna Amalia finds out, who has a boyfriend in the army!
And the one who talks big, if only she’d shut up!
She who plays the bourdon is a harpy!
Nor to the phonograph player, she’s a police informer!”
These are by far the most explicit verses in its condemnation of a regime of fear. By inserting names and plausible conversations, the political undertones of the poem acquire a dramatic and realistic nature. However, it would be wrong to assume that Perlongher understands political commitment in a Sartrean way, that is, through an overt and clear denunciation. His commitment with the social is more akin to that of Bataille, a penchant for the scatological and the erotic as forms of transgression of the established order. Pain, sex, excrements, and pustules are summoned throughout the poem as both a living counterpoint to the rhetorical cadavers and as a reminder of the bodily existence of those who are victims. It is in this graphic depiction of the private lives that defy the control of the state where Cadavers’ style shines:
“The fetus, growing in a rat-infested sewer,
The grandmother, shaving herself in a bowl of bleach,
The mother-in-law, guzzling a few seeds of vine shoot,
The aunt, going crazy for some ornamental combs:
There Are Cadavers”
All in all, the poem feels like a necessary exorcism of repressed feelings and fears, an expression of rage and helplessness in the face of terror. Cadavers is a highly-recommended reading and a powerful testament of the emotional and physical ravages caused by Videla’s dictatorship.